The declining share of major crops in the world goes to feed the hungry, most is used for non-food purposes


Increasing competition for many of the world’s most important crops is sending increasing volumes to purposes other than direct human feeding. These competing uses include the creation of biofuels; converting crops into ingredients for processing such as animal meal, hydrogenated oils and starches; and sell them on world markets to countries that can afford to pay for them.

У a recently published study, my co-authors and I estimate that in 2030 only 29% of the world’s harvest of 10 major crops will be able to be directly consumed for food in the countries where they were produced, compared to about 51% in the 1960s. We also believe that because of this trend the world is unlikely to achieve the main goal of sustainable development: end hunger by 2030.

Another 16% of the harvest of these crops in 2030 will be used for animal feed, as well as a significant portion of cereals that go for processing. It ultimately produces eggs, meat and milk – foods that are usually eaten by middle- and high-income people, not those who are malnourished. Diets in poor countries depend on staple foods such as rice, corn, bread and vegetable oils.

The crops we studied – barley, cassava, corn (corn), oil palm, canola (rapeseed), rice, sorghum, soybeans, sugar cane and wheat – together make up more than 80% of all calories from harvested crops. Our study shows that calorie production in these crops increased by more than 200% between the 1960s and 2010s.

However, today the harvest of crops for processing, export and industrial use is booming. We estimate that by 2030, the processing, export and industrial use of cereals is likely to account for 50% of the calories produced worldwide. If we add the calories recorded in crops used as animal feed, we estimate that by 2030 approximately 70% of all calories collected from these top 10 crops will go to needs other than directly feeding hungry people.

Maps of the world showing the increasing use of non-food crops worldwide

These two maps show how the use of 10 major food crops changed from the 1960s to the 2010s. In areas ranging from blue and green to red and purple, crops are increasingly used for food processing, export and industrial use (referred to as “other”). One hectare is approximately 2.5 hectares.
Ray et al., 2022, CC BY-ND

Serves the rich, not the poor

These profound changes show how and where agriculture and agribusiness respond to the growth of the world middle class. As incomes increase, people demand more animal origin and convenient processed food. They also use more industrial products that contain plant ingredients such as biofuels, bioplastics and pharmaceuticals.

Many of the crops grown for export, processing and industrial use are specially bred varieties of the 10 major crops we analyzed. For example, only about 1% of the corn grown in the U.S. is sweet corn, the type that people eat fresh, frozen or canned. The rest is mainly field corn, which is used to produce biofuels, feeds and food additives.

Crops grown for these purposes produce more calories per unit of land than those harvested for direct food use, and this gap is widening. In our study, we estimated that crops already yield twice as many calories as those harvested for direct consumption, and their yields increase 2.5 times faster.

The amount of protein per unit of land from the cultivation of crops is twice as much as food crops, and increases 1.8 times the rate of food crops. Cereals harvested for direct consumption had the lowest yields on all measurement indicators and the lowest rates of improvement.

Grow more foods that feed the hungry

What does this mean to reduce hunger? We assume that by 2030 the world will be collecting enough calories to feed its projected population, but it will not use most of these crops for direct consumption.

According to our analysis, 48 ​​countries will not produce enough calories within their borders to feed their populations. Most of these countries are in sub-Saharan Africa, but they also include Asian countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan and Caribbean countries such as Haiti.

Scientists and farmers have worked on it increase crop yields in countries where many people are malnourished but little has been achieved so far. There may be ways to persuade richer countries to grow more food crops and redirect these additional products to malnourished countries, but that would be a short-term solution.

My colleagues and I believe that the broader goal should be to grow more crops in food insecurity countries that are used directly as food, and to increase their yields. The end of poverty, the UN’s main goal in the field of sustainable development, will also allow countries that cannot produce enough food to meet their domestic needs to import it from other suppliers. Without more attention to the needs of people in the world who are malnourished, the elimination of hunger will remain a distant goal. The declining share of major crops in the world goes to feed the hungry, most is used for non-food purposes

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